Practice 10-Minute Consultation

Acute cough in adults

BMJ 2010; 340 doi: (Published 12 February 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c574
  1. Jochen W L Cals, general practitioner trainee and researcher1,
  2. Nick A Francis, general practitioner and researcher 2
  1. 1Department of General Practice, CAPHRI School for Public Health and Primary Care, Maastricht University, PO Box 616, 6200 MD Maastricht, Netherlands
  2. 2Department of Primary Care and Public Health, School of Medicine, Cardiff University, Cardiff CF14 4XN
  1. Correspondence to: J Cals j.cals{at}
  • Accepted 18 January 2010

A healthy, non-smoking 54 year old woman consults with a severe acute cough. It started two weeks ago with symptoms of a common cold, but she is worried about its duration and would like something to “clear it up.”

What you should cover

  • Ask about the duration and nature of cough, dyspnoea, wheezing, thoracic pain, upper respiratory tract symptoms, smoking, and use of drugs. Explore restrictions in activities as a result of the cough.

  • Are the symptoms caused by a self limiting or serious illness? Acute cough (less than three weeks) is most commonly caused by self limiting infections of the respiratory tract. Consider other common causes: (passive) smoking, bronchial hyper-reactivity, use of angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors, postnasal drip, and gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (unlikely with no history of heartburn or regurgitation).

  • Consider pneumonia—factors associated with an increased risk include use of oral glucocorticosteroids, heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), insulin dependent diabetes, serious neurological disorder, rheumatoid arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, and older age (especially over 80).

  • Asthma must be considered but is unlikely with no history of respiratory or atopic problems. COPD should be considered in smokers. Persisting paroxysms of cough, sometimes with vomiting, suggest whooping cough. Assess for less …

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